Theresa May thinks the future of education is segregation by religion or the 11 plus. We owe young people so much better.
Conservative England* is a nostalgic country at the best of times, but our new Prime Minister seems positively in thrall to the 1950s. Her first domestic policy of substance was to announce a plan to bring back the grammar school. May believes that by segregating children on the basis of one exam at the age of 11, she can usher in a new era of social mobility. It’s a seventy year old idea, which says that by educating the brightest children apart from the rest of society, those from disadvantaged backgrounds will be pulled up by their bootstraps and succeed where they otherwise would have failed. It sounds superficially attractive, can be labelled an aspirational policy and is popular with the Conservative grassroots. There is just one glitch; 70 years of evidence that grammar schools don’t reduce educational inequality, they entrench it.
That said, I welcome the fact that Theresa May is talking about social mobility. We need a national debate about why the wealth, networks and postcode of your parents are still the strongest determinants of the life chances and what we are prepared to do to act. Sadly, a retreat to the policies of selection and segregation do not represent a serious attempt to start that debate.
If your ambition is to help as many young people as possible to maximise their talent and be upwardly mobile, grammar schools fail on three counts.
1. Segregation by selection exacerbates educational inequality. All the evidence shows that where grammar schools exist, neighbouring comprehensives (that do not select on ability) fall further behind. In short, the gap between the best and worst performing schools grows wider. Tolerable if you are interested in only helping a minority; unacceptable if you are interested in boosting opportunity for all young people from poorer backgrounds.
2. The second flaw is that grammar schools have been disproportionately dominated by children from affluent families, nullifying the point of selection by ability, not income. Even the Department for Education green paper accepts this failing; “In January 2016, 2.5% of pupils in selective schools were eligible for free school meals, compared to 13.2% for all state-funded schools”. This reflects middle class parents paying for tutoring to prepare children to pass exams; meaning that even for those who believe in selection by ability at the age of 11, it’s impossible to realise. The private tutoring industry is already booming and will only expand further with the advent of more grammar schools.
3. Finally, none of the top scoring countries for educational achievement in the world have grammar schools, or select by ability. This is a peculiarly English obsession. The countries that do best have the least segregated schools, where children from diverse backgrounds learn together.
Segregation by academic selection is just one element of the Theresa May vision for education. A less well publicised element of the green paper is her proposal that faith schools are permitted to select 100% of their pupils on the basis of religion. The cap is currently 50%. What this means is practice is that a Catholic school can turn away a child on the basis of the Jewish faith of their parents, or a Sikh school can turn away a child, because their parents happen to be Muslim.
My view is thy there is no such thing as a Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, atheist or agnostic child. There are only the children of religious, or non-religious parents. As a result, I don’t believe any state school should permit the promotion of any one religion above another, let alone select pupils on the basis of faith. The role of religious education in the 21st century must surely to be to enlighten young people about all religions and none; allowing them to come to an independent judgement on whether faith will be a part of their adult life.
I accept that detaching faith and education will not happen overnight, but Theresa May’s proposals are an emphatic move in the wrong direction. In a modern, multicultural country, it is perverse to think that we are actively encouraging the segregation of children on the grounds of the religious faith of their parents — but that is exactly what this policy will do. Selection by religion risks further dividing communities and encouraging young people to see people of other faiths as different to them. It would be just as counter-productive as selection by ability.
What to do instead? Undoubtedly a subject for a future piece and lots of soul searching, but I will sign off with three principles for reformers who are serious about boosting social mobility.
1. English schools are already among the most socially segregated in the world, we need to break and reverse this trend. We must find ways to ensure a greater mix of children at all comprehensive schools, perhaps by introducing lotteries for school applications. It won’t be popular or politically easy, but we can look to many inner London comprehensive schools for inspiration, where almost 50% more young people get A*-C grades at GCSE than elsewhere in the country.
2. Good quality teachers are critical to success, but too many are turning away from the profession. We must find new ways to incentivise bright graduates to join, or remain in teaching and to live and work in communities where the challenge is greatest. For example, by offering debt relief on student loans for those who teach for five consecutive years after university, or offering loans that enable young teachers in their 20s to get a foot on the housing ladder.
3. Thirdly, education policy cannot provide the answer alone. We need integrated action on multiple fronts; from early years childcare to university admissions policy, through to concerted action to make work experience in some professions available to all, not just the preserve of a middle class network.
It won’t be easy, but the battle to drive social mobility in England is at a key turning point. The first step is to challenge Theresa May’s vision of segregation by religion and the 11 plus and move the debate back onto territory that is fitting for the 21st century. We owe young people so much better.
*As education policy is devolved in Scotland and Wales, the proposals on grammar schools and faith schools relate to England alone, hence the emphasis throughout the article.